Update: Michael Schudson has responded to this post.
Whatever else it is, The Reconstruction of American Journalism is not comprehensive.
Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson, authors of the Columbia University report, described their work in the Post today as a “comprehensive report.” They recommend federal subsidies for news organizations and changes in federal law to allow more philanthropic support for journalism. More on those topics later.
Here’s what the report does not address in any meaningful way:
- The role of social media in the future of journalism.
- The failure of media companies to develop new business models.
- The possibility of developing new business models that rely on the free market, rather than charity or taxpayers.
The first 70 pages or so of the 98-page report are basically an overview of the state of journalism today. Though touted by Dean Nicholas Lemann of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism for the “the breadth of their original research,” most of that overview is a rehash of conditions and developments that will be mostly familiar to people familiar with history and recent developments in the news media. As research, this is mostly what reporters call a “clip job,” rounding up the clippings (it’s a term dating to when these were actually clipped from papers, rather than read online) of other reporters who beat you to pieces of the story, and writing your own overview.
The overview did cover important issues, including the decline in reporting by newspapers, the state of broadcast reporting, new sources of independent news reporting, blogs, university reporting projects and public databases.
Clearly social media will play a huge role in the future of journalism — in the gathering and reporting of news and in the platforms on which people read the news. Social media and journalism are changing too swiftly for anyone to predict the future with much confidence or precision. But if you discuss the current state of journalism without considering social media, your work is not only not comprehensive, it’s shockingly inadequate.
I searched the text of the report after reading it, just to make sure I hadn’t missed. The term “social media” does not appear. Nor do such popular social platforms as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Flickr. The closest the authors could come are three passing references (on pages 13, 20 and 50) to social networks (in each case, social networks are part of a list; the report never discusses them specifically).
I wondered about whether Downie or Schudson even use social media. Neither has a Twitter account in his name. I couldn’t find Schudson on Facebook. Downie has an account and some friends (we have nine mutual friends), but doesn’t even have a profile photograph, so I’m going to guess he doesn’t use it a lot.
The report does discuss the paid-content controversy as well as some other efforts to develop business models, such as the range of new news organizations in San Diego. The report doesn’t mention the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next project (in which I was involved), which spurred a round of innovative projects but did not, to my knowledge, fundamentally change the way any newspaper companies operate. The report does not mention proposals for new business models that wouldn’t depend on federal intervention, such as my own Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection, the City University of New York’s New Business Models for News project or Steve Outing’s suggestion of memberships.
The truth is that media organizations are clinging stubbornly to their long-established business models. The most dramatic efforts at innovation have come from startups. The report describes a pretty vibrant ecosystem of small community journalism startups and investigative reporting projects without ever making a convincing case that they won’t provide the public-affairs journalism that our country and our communities need.
For the most part, the economic assumptions of this report are that advertising is in the tank and not likely to come back and advertising, donations or charging for content are the only possible meaningful, so we need help from the feds. The possibility of moving beyond advertising to becoming the digital marketplace for our communities gets only a passing mention on Page 75, quickly followed by the unsupported conclusion that efforts to find new business models “will no longer produce the kinds of revenues or profits that had subsidized large reporting staffs, regardless of what new business models they evolve.”
Case closed. We better put our hands out to the federal government.
While some of the specific recommendations that Downie and Schudson make have merit, the general thrust is that of a government bailout for journalism. As a First-Amendment purist who believes that independence ensures freedom, I cringe at the suggestion that we become that dependent on government (and government’s tax break for charity).
Admittedly, as Downie and Schudson recount in some detail, government intervention in the news media has been longstanding — postal subsidies, antitrust exemptions for jointly operated newspapers, heavy regulation of commercial broadcasting, heavy subsidy for public broadcasting.
We also should be careful what we ask for in seeking government help. Whatever journalists propose, the actual legislation will be written by Congress. The Senate version of the shield bill now in Congress, intended to protect journalists from having to disclose their sources, has a definition of journalist that excludes bloggers and freelancers. It would have excluded journalistic icon I.F. Stone. It may end up being worse than no shield law.
The first recommendation in the Columbia report would have Congress or the Internal Revenue Service authorize public-affairs reporting as a purpose for Low-profit Limited Liability Corporations (L3C). That is worth exploring, though I haven’t studied it enough to have an informed opinion. The second recommendation is for philanthropists, foundations and community foundations to increase support for organizations committed to public affairs and accountability reporting. Again, I see merit. But I wonder how such organizations would perform their watchdog role on the foundations that provide their support.
The fourth and sixth recommendations I fully endorse: increased accountability reporting by university journalism programs and increased access to data from all levels of government.
The third recommendation calls for increased funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, to support more local news reporting by public radio and television. With trillion-dollar deficits, that’s kind of hard to argue for, or to envision.
Perhaps the most troubling recommendation is the fifth one, which calls for a Fund for Local News, supported by a federal tax, collected by the Federal Communications Commission, on “telecom users, television and radio broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers.” This also calls for state “Local News Fund Councils.” Downie and Schudson liken this to public support for the arts, humanities and sciences. “We recognize that political pressure has played a role at times in the history of the arts and humanities endowments and public broadcasting. But these organizations have weathered those storms, and funding for the sciences and social sciences has generally been free of political pressure.”
Here’s my central point on Downie’s and Schudson’s dismissal of the notion that funding for accountability journalism could be insulated from political pressure: It’s hard to believe these two men could be so naïve as to think that public funding for news media would be no more controversial than funding for the arts. The news media are under vigorous attack now, and you can be sure that a federal tax to fund accountability journalism would be highly politicized, especially with 50 state councils in which media critics could apply pressure.
Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis have already blogged critically about this report, and both offer more insight on these topics than Downie and Schudson. David Carr reported on it for the New York Times. I will add more links as I find them. Rick Edmonds of Poynter was more positive, but didn’t endorse the Downie/Schudson recommendations. C.W. Anderson, who helped in the research, wrote about the report for the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Given the stature of Downie and Columbia, I expect this report to be taken seriously. I would be surprised, though, if it changes much or anything. I hope the authors catch up sometime on the world of social media and the private-sector possibilities for developing new business models.